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Bringing Home the Bacon...or Pork-Barrel Politics?

Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur Under Fire for Earmarks
Marcy Kaptur

When looking at what happens on Capitol Hill, taxpayers have a two-sided viewpoint: they want their money spent as wisely as possible, but they also want their fair share of what is spent.

Likewise, members of Congress have a dual role when it comes to their elected positions-- national policymaker and constituent caretaker.

Call it what you want-- a double-edged sword or a two-sided coin-- but Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-9th District) is getting a lot of heat for those dual roles, especially where federal earmarks are concerned these days.

Her supporters would simply say she "brings home the bacon".

But her critics deride her as a pork-barrel politician, second perhaps only to the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) in the ability to fund pet projects and shepherd grant funding to Northwest Ohio. However, Senator Byrd had all sorts of buildings named in his honor during his 50-year public political career, while Congresswoman Kaptur does not.

In fact, Congresswoman Kaptur ranked 24th out of 435 in the U.S. House of Representatives by sponsoring or co-sponsoring 57 earmarks totaling $71,301,300 in fiscal year 2010, according to the website opensecrets.org.

The practice of earmarks-- taxpayer money that Congress budgets for specific projects, programs or recipients-- adding to the growing federal deficit became so panned and unpopular among Americans that Congress banned their use last March, except for “nonprofit groups such as universities, charities, or government bodies.”

Yet, Congresswoman Kaptur came under fire recently for earmarks aimed at a newly-formed non-profit organization that shares the same address, offices, and management staff with a for-profit Northwest Ohio research company that has donated large sums to her re-election campaign.

The New York Times singled out Congresswoman Kaptur for aiding and abetting the end-around of the earmark rules.

Just a day after the ban on earmarks was announced, Imaging Systems Technology officials formed a nonprofit known as the Great Lakes Research Center in order for the Toledo-based defense contractor to skirt the rules and still qualify for $10.4 million in research earmarks secured by Ms. Kaptur. The money is to be used to research lightweight armor materials and a gas shield that the Times article claims may never even be purchased by the Defense Department.

Those two items eventually would be built by the family-owned, for-profit company and another defense contractor.

Ms. Kaptur’s Republican challenger Rich Iott quickly seized on the controversy, calling it “an embarrassment,” accusing the Congresswoman of “trading earmarks for campaign contributions," and calling on her to withdraw the earmarks requests, and disclose "all parties she has helped to skirt the congressional rules barring for-profit companies from receiving earmarks, whether or not they are in our district."  

Congresswoman Kaptur and her staff have defended the practice, a spokesman even quoted in the same Blade article that “she will continue to fight for projects that create jobs and 'spin off companies' and that help people in her congressional district.”

The Times article also suggests the earmark controversy gets even worse by, at Kaptur’s suggestion, the University of Toledo acting as a funnel for $12 million worth of other earmarks for the research efforts of three other for-profit companies.

Even the Blade editorial staff, which normally defends Kaptur as an effective legislator and advocate for her Northwest Ohio district, chided her for the practice, stating “her strenuous election-year efforts on behalf of a well-connected set of recipients are too clever by half.”

Whether the controversy will have the legs to unseat the long-time Congressional Democrat remain to be seen. Iott surely will try to paint Ms. Kaptur as a corrupt Washington insider who taps into the backroom deals many are criticizing the Obama administration of orchestrating.

However, Congresswoman Kaptur can rely on the strength of her incumbency and nearly 30 years of goodwill across her district as she seeks re-election. Her district includes two urban Democratic strongholds: Toledo and Lorain, which are surrounded by traditionally conservative rural counties. However, this may be the most expensive Congressional campaign of Ms. Kaptur’s career.